The Stastny Brothers' Journey to the West Began with a Brave Leap Over the Iron Curtain

updated 03/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Outside, Quebec City is paralyzed by a frigid Canadian winter. Inside, the National Hockey League's Quebec Nordiques have just finished a team practice. Only three players remain on the ice, all named Stastny. Phantomlike, the brothers, Marian, 29, Peter, 25, and Anton, 22, skate silently from one end of the rink to the other. After a while Marian and Peter begin firing pucks in the direction of Anton, who slaps each one with a sound like a rifle shot toward the empty goal at the end of the ice. The Stastnys know the value of teamwork. "When I play with other players," says Anton, "I can pass the puck to them if I can see them. With my brothers, I know just where they're going to be."

The Czechoslovak Ice Hockey Federation undoubtedly wishes it could have had Anton's prescience. Instead, the guardians of Socialist sport wound up embarrassed when Peter and Anton defected to the Nordiques after an international tournament two years ago, and Marian slipped away last summer. Eastern Europe's loss has been the NHL's gain. With Quebec heading for a spot in the playoffs—and its best season since joining the league three years ago—the immigrant brothers have become the heart of the team. Peter was the NHL's rookie of the year last season, and was chosen to play in last month's all-star game. Anton scored 39 goals and 46 assists in his first season. "Best of all," says Peter, "Marian has finally joined us."

The Stastnys—who are Slovaks, they point out, and not Czechs—were born in Bratislava, near the Austrian border. There were six children in the family, all raised in a one-bedroom apartment. The boys started playing hockey early ("We stole boards to build a rink," says Anton), rising quickly through the ranks of the juniors. By 1976 Marian and Peter were stars on the Czechoslovak national team that won world championships that year and the next. Anton joined them in 1977. Like all team members, the brothers were able to get cars and apartments without the usual five-year wait and received cash bonuses for defeating their archrivals, the Russians. But by 1980 their team was in shambles as a result of bad trades and mismanagement. "None of us expected to win when we went out on the ice," says Marian. "I can't play hockey that way."

For several years NHL teams had been scouting the Stastnys, but the brothers refused to leave. Then, in 1980, Peter and Anton decided to take advantage of the national team's appearance in Austria. "It wasn't just one thing," says Peter. "A lot had been happening. But I'm probably the one who said, 'Let's do it!' " Marian did not leave with his brothers because his wife, Eva, and their three children were still back in Bratislava. Peter's pregnant wife, Darina, had come to Austria on a spectator bus, and Anton had no family of his own. Security was loose, since Czech officials did not expect the brothers to split up. To begin the defection, Peter simply went to the Innsbruck post office and placed a transatlantic call to the Nordiques, the team that had wooed him most vigorously. Two team officials arrived in Innsbruck the next day. Two nights later, after a final game against the Soviet Union, Peter and Anton had a few beers with their teammates, said goodbye to Marian, and walked past the team bus to a waiting Mercedes. They were flown to Canada the following night.

After that Marian lived through a miserable year. "It was dreadful," he says, "but it was even more difficult for my family. They all lost weight, and I was nervous for months. I knew what was coming." Marian applied for permission to emigrate, but received no response. He was suspended from the national team, and his father was demoted from his job as a foreman on a hydroelectric project. Anton and Peter were able to telephone home, but the conversations were frequently cut off. "The police knew everything about me," says Marian. "I didn't want to go out illegally, but I had no other choice." As a ruse, he began remodeling his house. Then he and his family made several short trips to neighboring Hungary, always returning home when their visas expired. Finally, last June, they drove from Hungary into Yugoslavia, then on to Vienna. Nordique officials, who had aided Marian's escape surreptitiously, were in Austria in a matter of hours, and the Stastnys were on a plane to Quebec. "We made sure Marian had enough to live on when he was left behind," says Nordique president Marcel Aubut, who also paid off people inside and outside Czechoslovakia to assist in the defection. "That was quite an expensive operation. I had to be able to make a call at 10 in the morning and know I could have $100,000 by 5 in the afternoon."

Today the three Stastnys and their families live within minutes of each other in suburban Quebec City. Anton is now married to his Czech girlfriend, Galina, who was allowed to join him in Canada, and their son, Tomas, was born in January. Peter and Darina are the parents of an 18-month-old daughter, Katarina. Although the brothers are still struggling to learn French, their adjustment has been eased by $250,000-a-year salaries and memberships in a lavish health club, where they all work out regularly. Professionally, they have had to adapt to the grueling NHL season and the rougher North American style of play. Marian in particular seems amazed by the brawling ("They only fight two or three times a year in Europe"), but Nordique officials expect him to catch on quickly. "A man who has the courage to endure what he's been through," says one, "has to be a very special person. Marian won't stand for any baloney on the ice." Off the ice, of course, there are moments of loneliness, and of longing for a life that is now left behind. "Sometimes," says Marian, "I still feel like I'm playing for Czechoslovakia. I've played all over the world, but this time I can't go home."

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